Back row L-R: Charlotte Caffey, Kathy Valentine,
Gina Schock. Front: Belinda Carlisle & Jane Wiedlin
Music Press, 1995
By Devorah Ostrov
The Go-Go's are an improbable rock 'n' roll success story. They went from cute punkettes with a taste for Day-Glo but no musical expertise, to Grammy-nominated pop stars with their first LP. And the fact that just two albums later, they were burnt-out and broken-up makes their story even more interesting!
Last year, I.R.S. Records released Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's, a comprehensive two-CD retrospective which follows the growth of the band from early rehearsal outtakes through album cuts, hit singles, B-sides, and rare live recordings. Three new tracks round out the package and bring it fully up-to-date.
Meanwhile, an ongoing reunion tour in support of the retrospective has found an enthusiastic audience, which includes original fans as well as lots of kids who were too young for the first go (go) round.
To this day, many people wonder what it was that made the Go-Go's so special. After all, they were just five young women who sang about "inconsequential, yet happy things," as Creem's J. Kordosh once cynically noted.
|Promotion for Beauty And The Beat|
That's certainly part of their appeal, but in his Vacation-era comparison between the dependant nature of the early-Sixties girl-groups and the artistic freedom enjoyed by the Go-Go's, rock journalist Robot A. Hull hit upon something even more intriguing.
Cute punkettes with a taste for Day-Glo.
A brightly-colored pic featuring the group's early lineup
from the March 1979 issue of Bomp magazine
Photo: Jules Bates
Pieced together from a series of in-person interviews, phone conversations, and liberal borrowing from 'zines of the time - this is the story of the Go-Go's. But if recent events are any indication, it's only The Story So Far...
* * *
Belinda Carlisle was born in Hollywood but she grew up in the Valley (Thousand Oaks, to be exact), where she was a high school cheerleader. It was during her senior year, Carlisle told Star Hits magazine, that she became a "freak."
Go-Go's, Alley Cats & Plugz
at California Hall, San Francisco
Carlisle moved into the notorious Canterbury Hotel (really, just a roach-infested hovel), where she met Margot Olavarria and Jane Wiedlin (a fellow Valley refugee, who sometimes called herself Jane Drano).
According to the retrospective liner notes, in May 1978 the three girls were sitting on a curb in Venice, California, when they decided to form a band. (However, in its November '81 issue, the NY Rocker gives the plot an interesting twist by crediting the whole shebang to Olavarria and her friend Elissa Bello - neither of whom would be around for the first album.) One thing everyone agrees on though, was that none of the initial members were what you might call musicians. Carlisle had been in the Germs for about a day; the others had even less experience.
Wiedlin became the guitarist - she painted numbers on the fretboard to learn the chords. Olavarria acquainted herself with a bass. Carlisle was appointed lead singer and Bello became the drummer.
|Stiff Buy 78 - "We Got the Beat" b/w "How Much More"|
Referring to the band's early ineptness in the liner notes to the retrospective, Carlisle explains how the seasoned pros in the LA punk scene lent a hand: "We shared a rehearsal room with X and the Motels," she says. "Other bands would come by and give us lessons. They felt sorry for us."
Two months after forming, the Go-Go's made their live debut at the Masque, Hollywood's seminal punk dive. The entirety of their set lasted ten minutes and consisted of two originals - a political treatise about taking over the world called "Overrun" and "Hilburn," a put-down of the LA Times music critic. Technically, the set only consisted of one-and-a-half songs. As Olavarria once explained: "We did the first one over because we couldn't play the second one all the way through."
Even by punk standards it was a laugh, and by general consensus the group was dismissed as a cute novelty.
In September, the Go-Go's original lineup was completed with the addition of Charlotte Caffey, a southern California native with a degree in classical music. Caffey was playing bass with pop/punk trio the Eyes (whose drummer D.J. Bonebrake went on to join X) when she was approached by Carlisle and Wiedlin. She liked the idea of the group enough to lie when they asked if she could play lead guitar.
"We were always a pop band. The songs were really always there.
We were just so bad at playing them in the beginning!" -- Charlotte Caffey
At the time, Carlisle and Wiedlin were writing most of the group's material, but Caffey very quickly became a major contributor. "I think 'How Much More' was one of the first songs I showed the band," she says, "and then 'Beatnik Beach.' And then we all just started collaborating."
By the following year, the Go-Go's had shed their punk trappings. Gina Schock - a talented drummer who had once played in a band with Edith Massey called Edie and the Eggs - had replaced Bello and with much hard work under their collective belt, they'd evolved into a surprisingly adept pop band.
The Go-Go's at Flippers
Free Food! No Disco!
The Go-Go's big break came in 1980 when they opened some LA dates for Madness, and were subsequently offered the support slot on the group's upcoming British tour. As the nutty boys were the superstars of the UK ska movement - topping the charts with "One Step Beyond," "My Girl" and "Baggy Trousers" - it was an invitation the Go-Go's couldn't refuse.
"We sold all of our belongings," says Caffey. "We got rid of our apartments and essentially moved over there."
Touring England - first as guests of Madness and then the Specials - with no record company backing left them nearly destitute. "We were eating off of other people's garbage," recalls Caffey. But the experience proved worthwhile because, tucked in with their thrift-store frocks and lipsticks was a five-song demo tape featuring early versions of "Lust to Love," "How Much More" and "We Got the Beat." (According to Caffey, she wrote the latter while watching The Twilight Zone after having listened to "Going to a Go-Go," a proposed cover tune, several times.)
The Go-Go's: Creem Profiles
Profession: Getting and keeping the beat.
However, Stiff Records, the quirky English label responsible for launching the careers of the Damned, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury (and made rich by Madness) was willing to take a chance. Stiff signed the Go-Go's to a one-off single deal and released "We Got the Beat" b/w "How Much More" as Buy 78.
According to Caffey, Stiff also offered them a deal for the publishing rights to the songs. "We didn't even know what publishing was but we said 'No.' We figured if it was something they wanted, it was something we should keep!" Although they might have been naïve, they weren't stupid!
Oddly, while the 45's first pressing sold well enough in England, the single's infectious A-side became an underground dance hit in the States, and when the group finally returned home they found they could headline any club in LA.
They also found themselves in need of a new bassist when Olavarria was laid low with hepatitis shortly before the most prestigious gig of their burgeoning career.
Photo from the Rolling Stone list of
"Best Summer Songs of All Time," which ranks
"Vacation" at number 8.
"I thought the Violators were gonna be this huge band," muses Valentine, "but we broke-up instead." In 1978, she and Olson relocated to LA where they put together the Textones. A respected indie (back when that meant unknown) pop group, the Textones suffered from an ever-shifting lineup; Valentine was actually one of the first to leave.
|Go-Go's on the cover of BAM magazine|
Valentine's entrance into the Go-Go's came about when a mutual friend introduced her to Caffey, who inquired whether she played bass. Valentine, like Caffey before her, lied.
"I hadn't ever played bass before," laughs Valentine, "but I was sure that I could! I borrowed a bass, and the next day Charlotte came over and gave me a tape of their songs. I was like, 'Wow! I really like these songs!' And after I met everybody and we started rehearsing, it was really fun. I decided right there and then that I wanted to be in the band."
"Kathy learned all our songs in three days," marvels Caffey. Which was just in time for the group's new bassist to join them for a delirious series of sold-out New Year's Eve shows at the Whisky. The Go-Go's had arrived at last!
But they still couldn't get a major label deal.
I.R.S. publicity photo
Back row: Kathy Valentine & Belinda Carlisle
Back row: Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin & Gina Schock
For their first full-length offering - 1981's Beauty And The Beat - I.R.S. paired the Go-Go's with producer Richard Gottehrer. It was an inspired choice. Gottehrer's career stretches back at least to 1963, when he authored and produced the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back." In the mid-Sixties, he was one-third of the fabled F.G.G. team which produced "Hang on Sloopy" for the McCoys and scored huge hits of their own - as the wacky Strangeloves - with "Night-Time" and "I Want Candy." A decade later, he could be found producing Blondie's first two albums. In other words, the guy knows pop music. And what he helped the Go-Go's craft was nothing short of a pop masterpiece.
"Our Lips Are Sealed" - the hook-happy classic which Wiedlin fashioned from a letter sent by the Specials' Terry Hall - kicked off side one with a bang. It was followed by the equally assured power-pop punch of "How Much More" and "Tonite" (its snappy beat and time-honored teenarama lyrics are credited to Wiedlin, Caffey, and the Plimsouls' Peter Case: "The boulevard's crowded and loud/It's time for excitement right now/There's no better world to be found/If there was/We'd give it all for/For a lifetime like - Tonite!"), as well as "Lust to Love" and "This Town."
Creem magazine Rock Shots
Original caption: "By incredible coincidence, every member of
the Go-Go's complains of achiness and poor posture simultaneously."
A rave review in Creem noted how the group's "impeccable three-part vocals blend expertly with sparkling guitar lines and snap-shot drumming ... behind melodies that leave you hooked-out and harmonizing," while other 'zines termed Beauty And The Beat "bright," "compelling" and "artistically accomplished."
The Vacation tour of America:
Go-Go's with A Flock of Seagulls
If you don't think that's a pretty big deal, consider this: Beauty And The Beat was the first album by an all-female rock band, who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, ever to penetrate the Top 100! As The Trouser Press Record Guide proclaims: "It was proof that an all-female band could make it big without a man pulling the strings and without resorting to an image grounded in male fantasy, be it sex kitten or tough leatherette."
In fact, the only ones to find fault with the record were the Hollywood punks who yelled "Sell-out!" as loud as they could, and believe it or not, the Go-Go's themselves.
"When we got the tape of the first album, we hated it," confesses Caffey. "We cried. It wasn't what we sounded like live. You can hear on [Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's] how we sounded right before we went into the studio. We were very raw."
In retrospect, Caffey allows that Gottehrer was "obviously the right guy at the time to work with," but is she inferring that the vastly experienced producer dominated the much less experienced group?
|The Go-Go's and John Belushi|
"One thing he did do," reveals Valentine, "was bring in these songs for us to cover; songs that were written for the [early-Sixties] girl-groups. He really wanted to play up that side. And we almost fell for it. It was really close. I remember we said, 'Wait a minute, we have great songs! We love our songs! We don't need to do anybody else's songs!'"
To promote the album, the band was put on a gruelling tour schedule. It began with club dates and a rented van ("We wrote Van '81, like Airport '77, all over the inside of it," giggles Valentine), and ended with a tour bus and a support slot on the Police's world tour.
By the end of the year, avoiding the Go-Go's was next to impossible. The singles were pumped out of both Top 40 and hip FM stations on an hourly basis, while the video for "Our Lips Are Sealed" - which showed the colorfully attired group driving around town in a snazzy convertible and splashing in a fountain - was in heavy rotation on the new MTV channel.
Go-Go's Put Out - the girls in their underwear
on the cover of Rolling Stone
Caffey: "Now everybody thinks we don't have a wardrobe."
Schock: "Or else they think that we were trying to be sexy or something. That's a laugh. We were taking the piss out of the whole idea on the front with the cold cream..."
Detailing their busy schedule in Trouser Press...
Schock: "Usually our day consists of getting up around nine or ten, doing interviews and photo sessions all day, then doing a sound check and coming home to take a shower, get dressed and go to the show. And then we've got to do the show. Obviously, we enjoy it. I just never realized it would be as hard as it is."
Or dismissing all the hype in Creem...
Caffey: "There was something in an article about us being hyped and I thought about it for a while, but you know, a lot of the difference between us and other bands in the LA area is that we went out touring before we even got a record deal and we laid a lot of groundwork, which a lot of other bands didn't get a chance to do. So, when our album came out there really were a lot of people who were looking forward to it."
|Talk Show era publicity picture|
In theory, all of this meant one of two things could happen with the follow-up album: a) due to higher visibility, it would be an even bigger hit, or b) because everyone was sick of "America's Sweethearts," it would flop. In actuality, 1982's Vacation stalled somewhere in the middle.
The Go-Go's at the Merriweather
Post Pavilion - September 12, 1982
Creem gushed: "Vacation is no extension of the Go-Go's successful debut, it is in fact so much more of the same that it's a pleasure to hear, like a missing second record of a two-album set..."
But the LP was an acknowledged rush job. And while the band was now able to headline arenas like the 30,000 capacity Boston Gardens, album sales peaked at 800,000 and the wistful title track (written by Valentine during her Textones' days and embellished by Caffey and Wiedlin) proved only a modest hit.
Internally, things were also unravelling. On the business front, the group fired their longtime manager Ginger Canzoneri, which Wiedlin attributed to her inexperience: "[She] was basically a friend of ours who had never managed anybody before ... She hadn't made big-figure deals and she hadn't pushed record companies around. She hadn't done any of the things that become necessary when a band gets huge ... We wanted someone who would yell and scream, if necessary, and get things done for us."
They eventually signed with the high-powered Front Line Management organization, and although Vacation reached a respectable Number Eight in the album charts, its perceived mediocrity put the Go-Go's in a precarious situation. Critical backlash had it that the first LP was a fluke; they really couldn't play; they weren't serious about the band and they couldn't take the pressure.
|The Go-Go's model Star Hits T-shirts|
In the midst of all this, Caffey incurred a problem with her wrist which kept her from playing for several months. She also developed a serious case of writer's block, leaving the bulk of material for the next album up to the others.
"It was such a guilt thing on me," Caffey lamented to Record magazine. "I felt, 'I'm ruining it' ... I don't know what triggered what, or what came first - if having my hand not working made me not be able to write or vice versa ... It was a very, very difficult time for us." In the same article, Valentine admitted, "I was really scared we were going to break up ... We were falling apart at the seams."
All in all, it was two years before the Go-Go's re-emerged with Talk Show, their third (and final) LP. British producer Martin Rushent replaced Gottehrer, causing many fans to fear the worst. A synthesizer enthusiast, Rushent was best known for his work with the Human League and Altered Images - and for his publicly stated conviction that guitars were likely to become obsolete.
Talk Show advertisement
album & cassette out March 19th!
But it was too little too late.
When the tour to promote Talk Show was postponed while Schock recovered from surgery to repair a congenital heart defect, magazine articles reported how the girls pulled together in support. "I don't think there are many bands who love each other as much as we do," Valentine announced.
However, as Carlisle explains in the retrospective liner notes: "When you're that young and having that kind of success, there's no sane way to handle it. I remember smoking a cigarette and someone saying, 'My God, you smoke?' And I thought, Jesus, if you only knew. We were good people, but it was hard to live up to being cute, bubbly and effervescent, which is what they always called us."
Elsewhere in the liner notes, Wiedlin states: "We had this whole unwritten code that you had to be a Go-Go every minute of the day. We all had to think the same thing and want the same guys. Party together. Shop together. The togetherness was ridiculous. It was probably the equivalent of ten lifetimes of marriage."
Jane Wiedlin teams up with Sparks
"Cool Places" 45
While Wiedlin's departure may have spurred the break-up ("The chemistry wasn't the same anymore," says Caffey), it could also be attributed to sheer exhaustion.
"We were burnt-out," confirms Caffey. "From 1981-1984 we made three records and went on a zillion tours. We didn't know how to say 'No.' We didn't know how to take breaks."
"What we should have done," reasons Carlisle, "was taken a break and all come back at a certain point. But we didn't know that."
The split was messy. Reports said that Carlisle was an alcoholic, and that (at least some of) the others had drug problems of their own. It was rumoured that when Carlisle and Caffey decided to quit, they had their manager tell the others the news - although at the time Carlisle insisted: "We just called a meeting and told them, that's all." Meanwhile, Valentine and Schock supposedly vowed to deliver a fourth Go-Go's album to I.R.S. - which never materialized.
"I think it hysterical! It's Modesty Blaise,
Casino Royale..." -- Belinda Carlisle
For a long while, none of the ex-Go-Go's spoke to one another. Then, in March 1990, they reunited for a one-off benefit show in support of California's "Big Green" initiative. "At that point, we had all just gotten back in touch," says Valentine. "Enough time had gone by so we weren't mad at each other anymore, and it was really fun!"
The benefit was followed by a short tour to promote a Greatest Hits CD, after which everyone again drifted off in different directions - this time amicably.
Last year, I.R.S. marked its fifteenth anniversary and released the Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's CD as part of the celebrations. When the band members found out that the label planned to portray the history of the group through album cuts, hit singles, B-sides, alternate takes and live rarities, they immediately wanted to get involved.
"We really thought that we could make it a better package," states Valentine. It was the group's idea to include previously unreleased material from early rehearsal tapes (such as "Living at the Canterbury," "Fun With Ropes" and "London Boys"), all of which Caffey had held onto. "It was part of the history of the band," she says. "I didn't want to just dump them."
Prime Time Tour '84
C.S.U.F. Amphitheatre in Fresno, California
Other than hating Schock's dress and wishing Wiedlin wasn't in dominatrix gear, Carlisle loves the artwork. "Someone actually said to me, 'Don't you think you're being presented as bimbos?' I think it's hysterical! It's Modesty Blaise, Casino Royale..."
But the girls also wanted to let fans know that there was still life left in the Go-Go's, so they thought about recording a few new songs. Caffey explains, "Before we started writing we said, 'We're just gonna see what happens. If we like what we write and it feels good to us, we'll record it. If not, we won't.' There was no calculation. It was just like, 'Whatever.'"
As it turned out, they came up with nine new tunes, then pared it down to the three they felt were the strongest - "Good Girl," "Beautiful" and "The Whole World Lost its Head." Valentine and Wiedlin paired up to write the latter, which became the band's first single release in a decade. (MTV ignored the video and the song fizzled in the States, but it's just entered the British charts at Number 29!)
Minus Caffey (who's expecting the birth of her first child), the reunited Go-Go's are currently in the middle of a large-scale tour in support of the retrospective CD. The highlights have so far included a six-night stint at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a televised performance with Little Richard at the American Music Awards, and an appearance on Top of the Pops.
The big question is: When the tour finishes, will the Go-Go's continue?
The answer is: Maybe, maybe not.
|Group pic from "The Whole World Lost Its Head" 45|
Photo: Vicki Berndt
So, the Go-Go's isn't their main priority?
"No, I can't say that it is," states Valentine.
"No," agrees Carlisle. "The reality is, I have a family and [solo] career that I have to take care of.
"Everyone's got full lives," emphasizes Valentine, "and that's why the band isn't a priority. It's just a matter of seeing what happens, really."
* * *
Promo poster for the Vacation
Tour of America
1995 Update: Carlisle is currently living in France. Valentine is playing the blues and thinking of moving back to Texas. Wiedlin is writing "gut-wrenching, introspective" solo material. Caffey speaks excitedly about finding new inspiration in her husband (Redd Kross vocalist/guitarist Jeff McDonald) and other women rockers. "I feel great about where I'm at musically," she says, "and I'm working on getting a solo thing together." Schock had been playing in Kindred Spirit with ex-Bangle Debbi Peterson until a couple of years ago; presumably, she's also keeping busy with solo projects.